Zubr-Bison Tracking in Europe’s Largest Old Growth Forest

September 2021: Before this trip the closest I was to visiting Poland was being stuck in a taxi-way at the Warsaw airport while drinking vodka shots and eating sausages with a group of Russians on a connecting flight to Iran. We were stuck in the plane for hours while waiting out a blizzard in the middle of the night.

After extensively traveling throughout Eastern Europe, a visit to Poland, one of the most interesting and beautiful countries of Eastern Europe, was way overdue.  As with most places I visit I decided to choose a destination that is less trodden by the masses and has a natural uniqueness to it. In this case, I chose Białowieża Forest-Europe’s largest old growth forest and the last place where you can find wild herds of bison in Europe-the Zubr-800 strong. The forest, a mix of decidious and coniferous trees is divided between eastern Poland and western Belarus and besides bison is the home to wolves, lynx, elk, moose and after being hunted away, even bears have started to return.

 

How to Get there?

Bialowieza Forest on the Map

Day 1: My wife and I flew into Warsaw arriving during a late afternoon rainstorm. We picked up some food from the airport MacDonalds, our rental car and set off into Poland with an expected drive of 2 hours ahead of us to get to our hotel near Treblinca.

The beauty of renting a car in another country is that you always feel like you are just learning how to drive all over again. You need to quickly adapt to new driving rules, signs, behaviors of other drivers and to top it off the vehicle was manual and felt nothing like the manual truck that I drive at home. I forgot to add the factor of being jetlagged and sleep deprived to the mix. It took me all night to figure out how to put the vehicle in reverse and at one urination break on the side of the road, because I didn’t know how to reverse the car, we had to put it in neutral and push it backwards in order to re-position the car on the road. It turns out there was a very simple trick for reverse that I stupidly overlooked.

Then after a stressful evening of driving in the rain, we arrived at our roadside hotel next to a large wooden house with a giant sign labeled “BAR” on it and a mile long line of semi-trucks lined up down the street next to it. It seemed we had to awaken the hotel staff to check in to our hotel. We were given our room key and entered our room only to see that it was never cleaned. The sheets were messy, empty beer cans, tossed sheets, un-flushed toilet and the room reaked like cigarettes. So we had wake up the hotel staff again to get a different room, this time clean but still reaking but instead of just a cigerette smell it was a mix of cheap cleaning products and cigerettes. So we left the window open to vent the room out.

Memorial Built by the Soviets that Initially Cleared the Camp when Invading Germany from the East 

Treblinka World War II Nazi Extermination Camp

Day 2: It may sound crazy but no visit to Poland is complete without visiting a Nazi extermination camp. The Nazis built three of the largest extermination camps that the world has ever known and all three are in Poland. The camps were part of the final solution plan by the Nazis to eliminate the Jews and any other group of people the Nazi’s considered undesirable. Millions of Polish people, and Jews from Poland and beyond were murdered in these extermination camps. The largest was Auschwitz and the second largest was Treblinka. In order to prevent the world from repeating its past mistakes, historical lessons like these should not be forgotten and I think it is important for tourists to visit these places to understand the scale of evil that the world is capable of and to also pay tribute to the victims and the unimaginable torment they must have experienced.

Treblinka consists of a huge area now forested that includes the ruins of the labor camp, location of the gas chambers and cremation pits, and a large memorial to its victims. The area stretches miles through a forest and is best explored on foot. We parked and set off on foot. We were the only visitors and it was very eerie walking around a place that despite being beautiful and peaceful in its current state, was once a place of immense death and anguish. Approx. 1 million people were murdered at Treblinka. Most were killed within 30 minutes of arriving in the gas chambers. During the end of the war when Himmler realized the Nazi’s were losing, weary of being convicted for war crimes, Himmler ordered all of the bodies be exhumed from the mass graves and cremated in massive cremation pits where the giant memorial now stands. The buildings were also razed. The intent was to conceal the evidence.

Train tracks that brought thousands of victims, mostly Polish Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the extermination camp every day

Nazi Guard Post

Mass Graves

Driving Through the The Polish Countryside

From Treblinka we drove through the countrside on the small rural roads to reach Bialowieza Forest. We passed through small villages, with verdant fields and old wooden houses-some restored some delapatated. Sometimes the roads were so narrow that they were barely one lane and it took great concentration to squeeze passed oncoming traffic while still keeping to the road. Other drivers evidently felt a lot more comfortable speeding on the narrow roads than I did because I was constantly being passed. The largest road hazard by far was elderly people on bikes meandering along at a turtle like pace.  

 

 

Old Rural Houses in Polish Countryside

Elderly People on Bicycles 

Old Wooden House

Old Wooden House

Bialowieza Forest

Roads into the Forest

I booked a guesthouse at a farm stay in the small village of wooden houses in Budy, deep in the Bialowieza Forest. Most of the wooden houses were re-built after World War II. During the war, a Nazi resistance movement of partisan rebel soldiers supported by the villagers sought refuge in the forest. The Nazis as punishment burned down most of the old wooden houses.

As soon as we entered the village, we spotted a lone wild bison (see cover photo) standing in a meadow near the forest edge. The big bull stood a few hundred feet away and was visivly timid. This was as close as we were able to get before it wandered off into the woods. The bison or Zubr as they are called in the Polish language are some of the last bison left in Europe. They were on the verge of extinction in the early 1900s and were brought back from the dead with the help of captive populations and have reached peak capacity levels for the Bialowieza area and are now flourishing. They are protected and no hunting of them is allowed. 

 

Budy Village

Our Farm Guest House, Budy

Into the Strict Reserve

The Bialowieza Forest is not only divided between Poland and Belarus, it was also divided between old growth-Strict reserve- and secondary growth sections. The Belarus section of the forest was inaccessible to us since the border was closed due to tensions between Poland and the President of Belarus- dubbed the Last Dictator of Europe-Strongman-Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko was reportedly blackmailing the European Union by sending un-wanted immigrants across the border from Belarus into Poland through the remote border areas of the Bialowieza Forest.

The secondary forest although still amazing and wild was less than 200 years old because it had been logged during this time. The old growth forest was older than 200 years and the trees in some cases were 1000 years or older and this area of the forest was pure magic and reminded me of something from the childhood story of Hansel and Gretel. The idea of a little wooden house with an old wart nosed witch seemed to really fit in with this forest. The old growth section of the forest is called the strict reserve and is strictly regulated. it’s existence is due in large part to the Polish and Russian royalty who for hundreds of years preserved the area as their own personal hunting reserve. To enter the forest, an official forest guide is required. I pre-arranged a local guide from Bialowieza Village-a very knowledgeable man who seemed to have a strong passion for the forest.  I pre-arranged with him the permission only reserved for scientists and Biologists to go deep into the reserve-more than 5 hours hiking. We set off in the early afternoon into the forest with intermittent rain. It was clear that the area receives a lot of rain judging by how green the forest was and the ferns, moss, wildflowers and mushrooms draping over the forest-scape.

 

The Old Forest Entrance Gate

We entered the strict reserve of the Bialowieza Forest through the old 200 year old wooden gates.   From there we hiked for hours into a magical fairy tale land of natural heaven. For me it was a photographer’s paradise. There forest was thick was greenery and it reminded me of the Pacific Northwest except for that most of the trees were Oak, Maple, and other deciduous varieties. Sadly there are reports of illegal logging in the reserve and some of it is even reported to have been sanctioned by the Polish government to eradicate pests that are claimed to be killing the trees. 

 

Old Growth Forest-Trees draped in moss, lichens and mushrooms

Old Growth Tree and Paula

Old Growth Forest

We loved this very interesting looking Caterpillar so much that I spent 30 minutes trying to photograph it. 

Old Growth Forest

There are so many different types of mushrooms

More mushrooms

The foulest appearing mushroom of them all was the stink horn mushroom which surprisingly doesn’t have a name related to it’s obvious appearance of male genitalia. Instead it is named after it’s very un-pleasant odiferous aroma that in this photos has attracted a fly. 

Old Growth Forest-Tree Frog Camouflaged  in the Tree Moss

Elk watching us nervously as we walked passed

Memorial to the partisan fighters who were executed by the Nazis in the forest. Partisan soldiers consisting of un-trained Polish locals many who were Jewish revolted against the Nazis and turned to the forests for refuge, which they used as a base to launch attacks against the Nazis. The local villagers supported the partisan fighters. The Nazis responded by burning down the villages, executing anyone suspected of being a fighter or helping them. Dozens of fighters were hung from the church in Bialowieza Village to make a statement and many others were lined up and executed in the forest on this spot. 

Tracking Bison with Night Vision Scopes at 3am

Day 3: Early in the morning, we awoke at 3am to observe bison with our Polish forest guide. Early morning was the best to time to observe wildlife. Just days before, he was with a tourist watching a herd of 30-40 bison when they also observed a wold chasing a bison calf. Hopefully we would have similar results. We drove down some small dirt roads through the forest along the Belarus border and stopped at several different meadows bordering the forest to look for bison. The rain was pretty steady at this point and wasn’t helping our prospects. For the next few hours until sunrise, we did end up spotting bison but not huge herds of them and sadly no wolves. We used the guide’s nighscope to spot them, which detected their heat signals and despite the darkness the bison were very clear in the nighscope. My highlight was a small white owl in the middle of the road that stood motionless staring at us as we drove passed. 

With little sleep in days, we returned to ourfarmhouse at sunrise to sleep for a few hours before the long drive back to Warsaw. We had planned to do more hiking into the strict reserve but the rain became heavy now and the experience would have been extremely un-pleasant. 

Night in Warsaw

We arrived to Warsaw in the afternoon and arranged a historical tour of the old town and Jewish ghetto. We learned that most of the old city was destoyed by the Nazis and almost all of it had been re-created since World War II and post-communism.  The guide showed us areas still poclmarked with bullet holes from WWII. It was interesting to learn about the influences of WWII, Soviet occupation and the church on modern day Poland.

After walking the old town, we visited the 800 foot tall building-Palace of Culture and Science gifted to Poland by Stalin in 1952. The huge art deco styled building resmbles the Empire State Building of New York and has an oppresive communist feel to it. Many people of Poland resent the building as a symbol of the oppresive occupation of Soviet Russia post WWII.

Paula and I waited 30 minutes in line with hundreds of people all waiting to ascend to the roof top viewing area in one elevator. From the top, we had a great view of the city but it was hard to enjoy the view knowing that we had to wait in line again for 30 plus minutes to go back down in the one elevator with hundreds of others.  We needed sleep because the next morning, we had an early morning flight to Skopke, North Macedonia.

Palace of Culture and Science-Gift from Stalin

Inside Elevator to Rooftop Terrace of the Palace of Culture and Science

Old Warsaw

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